‘It’s very childish, this need to know everything’, Maureen tells her daughter Anna in Mark Ravenhill’s new play, The Cane. She believes that some things are better left unspoken, some skeletons are better left in the closet. Anna, on the other hand, disowned by her teacher parents for taking up the cause of academisation, talks the management-speak of ‘transparency’ and ‘best practice’. In her view, the past should be picked over and reckoned with. The reason for this reckoning: her father Edward is retiring after 45-years of teaching, a teaching career that included using the cane to discipline boys.
Ravenhill’s play is a masterclass in naturalism, one that shows how subtle and slippery naturalism as a form can be. Under Vicky Featherstone’s sensitive direction, sympathies and allegiances shift between characters as the evidence gathers. Was Edward justified in doling out punishment as an accepted, legal practice? Or should he have stuck to his principles, when he and Maureen declared themselves against the cane as student teachers? Did Edward reluctantly take on the role of Deputy Head, knowing that it involved caning, in order to support his family? Or did he like the power?
In the second half of the play, Anna, played by Nicola Walker with the defiance of a child and the steely control of a woman, dares her father to reveal his sadistic streak. Edward, who at first seems an amiable enough man in Alun Armstrong’s performance, displays terrifying flashes of misogynistic rage, calling his wife and daughter ‘bitch’ and ‘cunt’. The previously spiky Maureen cowers in the corner, intoning ‘I don’t want any more rage’, in a brilliant performance by Maggie Steed. The Cane reveals the latent, patriarchal violence of rules, whoever is upholding them.
Chloe Lamford’s set is a key part of the impact of the production. The drab, grey walls bear scars from when, Maureen says, as a child Anna chased her father round the room with an axe. Anna claims not to remember. Rotting stairs float up the walls, which extend to an impossibly high ceiling. The walls dwarf Anna and Maureen as, in the vein of the best dysfunctional family dramas, they find the sharpest language with which to hurt each other. The ceiling creeps down between the acts, compressing the oxygen in the room as the tension builds. The lowered ceiling reveals the attic, Edward’s hidey-hole of mementoes from the past that he has not been able to throw away. Yet, rather than the awe of revelation of the fantasy forest wonderland above an otherwise naturalistic set in Bunnie Christie’s design for Robert Icke’s The Wild Duck, Lamford’s attic has grey stone walls. There is no escape to imagination. Instead, the past returns insistently, through the battered dÃ©cor, the ladder down from the attic, and the shared history of the family.
‘Is that it?’, Maureen asks, when Edward has finally brought down the cane from the attic and unwrapped it from its blanket swaddling. Over the course of the play, the cane has taken on such a great symbolic stature that seeing how small and slight it is cannot help but be a disappointment. All this over a piece of wood? But it’s not just a piece of wood. It represents state-sanctioned abuses of power, colonial rule, patriarchy. Edward’s final monologue, which Armstrong delivers staring directly at the audience as the ceiling closes in on him, even draws parallels with the tribunals of ageing war criminals. The Cane brilliantly, troublingly asks, how do we reckon with uncomfortable histories (for uncomfortable read violent) without diminishing or palliating them? How do we take responsibility and who should take responsibility? Can an apology ever be sufficient?
The Cane is on at The Royal Court until 26th January. More info here.